Charlotte Klein: The New York Times Is On the Hunt for Its Next Media Columnist

From a story on by Charlotte Klein headlined “‘You Don’t Want Someone Copying Ben’: The New York Times Is On the Hunt for Its Next Media Columnist”:

After spending the past two years delivering media scoops, Ben Smith kicked off 2022 with big news of his own. The New York Times’ media columnist announced he’d be giving up one of the marquee gigs in journalism to help build a global news start-up with Justin Smith, the chief executive of Bloomberg Media. To some inside the Times, the former top BuzzFeed editor returning to running a newsroom seemed inevitable. “He’s been part of the world for so long, not just as a reporter but as a player,” one Times staffer said. “He wants to be a player again.”

The reaction among employees I talked to was mixed. “I think people thought he did a good job, so they’ll miss him,” said one. Another staffer put it differently: “I don’t think anyone was shedding a huge tear.” Neither was Smith, apparently, who went from saying in initial interviews that he didn’t know when his last day would be to tweeting days later that there’d be no more columns from him. Thus ended a weekly ritual not seen since the days of David Carr, with Media Twitter once again gathering online for the latest Media Equation column (and maybe Succession). A Timesspokesperson told me they “plan to keep the column and are in discussions with candidates,” but “there is no set timeline.”

So let the guessing game begin! Already, Gabriel Snyder’s “Off the Record” newsletter floated highly unlikely candidates (Dean Baquet? David Simon?) along with more plausible ones, like Wesley Lowery, a journalist not afraid to challenge media conventions. I, too, have heard Lowery’s name in conversations with Times staffers, though he’s already wearing several hats—CBS News correspondent, GQcontributing writer, and contributing editor at the Marshall Project—and may not want to be tied down to one place, at least not for long. Another name making the rounds internally is Katie Rosman, a media-inclined features reporter who, the person said, “makes a lot of sense” and has a “real funny, weird voice.”

Presumably, the Times will cast a wide net and expand its search beyond white, male writers, given how they’ve dominated the paper’s media column (and the media beat more broadly); Defector’s Laura Wagner and NPR’s Eric Deggans were a couple of names that came to mind for one longtime media watcher. Some see Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of the Times, as a strong candidate. But don’t hold your breath for a reunion. Asked whether she was interested, Sullivan said she hadn’t been approached. “I have a feeling that The New York Times has had enough of my press commentary over the years, and, after all, I have the best media-columnist perch in the country right now in the Style section of The Washington Post,” she added.

Though it’s easy to imagine “dogged reporter X” or “media critic Y” simply being plunked into Smith’s old role, the Times may pause to imagine the possibilities for what The Media Equation should be at this moment. Smith’s departure “was a real jolt” and presented “a moment for rethinking the focus,” said someone at the Times who has talked to both Smith and editors involved with filling the role. “If you thought about David Carr as really chronicling the decline of print and the contraction of the industry and emergence of these digital start-ups, then Ben was almost like the opposite chapter, with the assertiveness of the big legacy media—including the Times hiring him,” the person said. “You want somebody who is going to be true to themselves. You don’t want someone copying Ben,” said one Times employee….

Whoever comes next will be following an impressive run. A renowned troublemaker, Smith took on the Times out of the gate, scrutinized journalistic stars inside and outside the paper, tackled race and labor issues, and, of course, landed big scoops. That aggressive and provocative approach appeared in stark contrast to that of the Times’ own media desk, which is more staid in its coverage. The columnist’s departure isn’t the only shake-up for the section. Media editor Jim Windolf is soon moving to a new role in Styles, and they’ll be hiring a new editor to replace him. The desk, which in 2014 was added into the Business section and in September lost Edmund Lee to the new Standards team, is also seeking a media reporter.

The Times is without a media columnist as other prominent outlets have recently staffed up on the media front, with The New Yorker hiring Clare Malone and New York bringing on Shawn McCreesh, formerly of the Times. Both have already upped their publications’ metabolism when it comes to the media beat, with each writer quickly interviewing Smith after his news broke. Axios has also expanded its media team, hiring CNN’s Kerry Flynn. Yet while other outlets seem to be rethinking their conception of the beat, the Times, one staffer said, is stuck in the past. Top editors’ sense of media coverage “is still very steeped in a dated understanding of how the business works,” the staffer said. “We’re totally missing the story on how tech is media and media is tech.”

Charlotte Klein is a staff writer at Vanity Fair’s Hive.


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